Anna McCanse Nelson literally wrote the (guide)book on Dominica. After living in Dominica for 2 years, one gets the impression she would go back in a heartbeat.
Eric Murtaugh: What brought you to Dominica?
Anna McCanse Nelson: I joined the Peace Corps in 2006 and it was completely by luck that I was chosen to go to Dominica.
I really didn’t know anything about the country and at the time there was almost no information about it, outside of a few pages in a Caribbean guidebook, so it was a pleasant surprise that it ended up being such an incredible place. I stayed in Dominica for 2 years, in the village of Grand Bay.
EM: What advice would you give to first time visitors to Dominica?
AMN: Don’t expect a relaxing beach vacation in Dominica. You won’t find visitors laying around with mai tais with umbrella straws here.
Be prepared to get active. There is so much to do and see but you should be prepared to do a bit of work, albeit really fun work like hiking to a waterfall, to get the most out of your vacation.
EM: What’s the food like?
AMN: The food is interesting and not really what you’d expect from a Caribbean island.
The typical Creole plate that you can get at any local restaurant almost always consists of a type of meat, which will be either fish, chicken, or goat, some provisions, which is a kind of starchy vegetable, and usually a salad and rice and beans with a sauce for everything.
American-type food is available as well in the capital and at most hotel restaurants. One of the best places to get a Creole lunch is at Kalinago Barana Aute, in the Carib Territory. Their cook, Rose, is amazing.
EM: You wrote a guidebook on Dominica. How did that come about?
AMN: When I was there, there wasn’t a guidebook completely devoted to Dominica yet and the other Peace Corps Volunteers and myself noticed how hard it was for tourists to get around and know what to do there.
So we had talked about writing one ourselves but never really started working on anything.
When I returned to the states I was really homesick for Dominica and was thinking of going back for an extended visit and I just happened to see an ad in a Peace Corps publication by a travel guide publishing company looking for someone to write a guidebook about Dominica.
The company is called “Other Places” and they hire Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to write guidebooks about the countries where they served so it was a perfect fit. I sent him some writing samples and he hired me!
EM: Take us through the process of writing a guidebook.
AMN: I started by reading a lot of guidebooks written by different companies and I found a few authors that I really liked and found the types of formats and organization that I thought would work well for me.
Then I created a very detailed outline and with my publisher I set some deadlines for myself. I wrote as much as I could while I was still in the U.S. but found that I really needed to be back in Dominica to research the majority of it.
I also happened to know a guy who had lived in Dominica for a short stint and had hiked almost all of the trails so I got him on board to do a comprehensive hiking section of the book, since hiking is one of the main attractions on the island and there are virtually no maps that tourists can use to navigate the trails.
Once we got down to Dominica I spent all day visiting hotels, restaurants, and sites and mapping everything.
We created some of the first maps of the island that are comprehensive and specifically for tourism, with every hotel, restaurant, site, and hiking trail marked. It was quite an undertaking.
We used Google Earth to do it and since there are no road names outside of the capital that meant making hand drawn maps and marking every physical landmark and roof color so that I could find the place at home on Google Earth.
We also used a hand-held GPS device for the trails and some of the other sites to be sure they were absolutely exact. In the evenings in Dominica I would try to type up everything I saw that day so that I wouldn’t forget any of the details.
It was actually very grueling work and not as glamorous as one might think. I wasn’t really able to relax and enjoy all of my favorite places or spend much time in my village with my friends. But I was completely overjoyed to be back in Dominica the entire time I was there.
Once I got back to the U.S. I spent months writing and editing and organizing the information, with help from my publisher and the editors. Overall it took over a year to complete.
EM: Any interesting local customs?
AMN: Dominica has managed to maintain a very strong Caribbean Creole culture, due to the lack of tourism and big resorts and hotels that have taken over most of the other Caribbean islands.
Therefore the people still speak Creole and live much like they have for centuries, but now with more modern amenities like cell phones and televisions.
During the month leading up to their Independence Day, November 3, you’ll find traditional dance and music competitions and it ends with the World Creole Music Festival, which is a three-day and three-night festival with artists performing from all over the Caribbean.
And then there’s Carnival that happens in February. Leading up to it there are calypso song and dance competitions and a Carnival King and Queen are elected. And Carnival itself is a three-day affair with parades and drinking and dancing and street jump-ups in the smaller villages. It’s really a lot of fun.
Many of Dominica’s traditions and beliefs stem from their melange of cultures that make up the country. They have the only designated reservation for the indigenous people of the Caribbean, the Kalinago, which is located in the northeast and is well worth a visit.
Because Dominica was colonized by the French and British they still speak a French Creole language and have tea and biscuits in the evenings, play cricket, and their government is a direct reflection of the British system of government.
Almost the entire population of Dominica are descendants of slaves from West Africa and their traditional dances and superstitious beliefs stem from that region.
And then there is, of course, a bit of an influence from America because people now have televisions and some of the younger generation want to emulate what they see on TV.
EM: Describe what it was like for you coming back to the United States.
AMN: It was actually really hard and I was completely unprepared for how hard it was going to be.
We were told it was going to be difficult and to really take some time adjusting before we started working again but I guess I didn’t believe that going to the place that I had lived most of my life would be difficult so I jumped right back into my former teaching job in San Francisco, at a very intense school, within a few weeks of being back.
It ended up being so overwhelming that I was completely miserable for months. I was used to a very stress-free and simple life where everything moves incredibly slowly and people won’t pass you on the street without a polite conversation and everyone knew who I was and would come over to say hello.
And then when I came back to a big city where things move at the speed of light and worked 60-70 hour work weeks, it was quite a shock to my system. It was hard to keep up and all I wanted to do was be back in my little village in Dominica!
EM: How does one live like a local in Dominica?
AMN: Well one must start by being very friendly and greeting every single person you pass by with a “good morning, good afternoon, or good night.”
And walk slowly…they don’t appreciate hurried and stressed out folks in Dominica. Take the bus with the locals and sing along to the Caribbean reggae jams or hitchhike in the back of a pick-up.
Bathe and do your laundry in the river with the villagers and go watch a cricket or soccer game on a Saturday afternoon.
Go to church on Sunday and be sure to wear your Sunday-best clothes.
Help out at a banana farm and try the local produce straight from the trees. Try some “bush rum” at a village rum shop and play dominoes with locals there in the evenings.
And try to speak a little Creole. A little effort goes a long way.
EM: Any Dominica travel tips you care to share?
AMN: My number one tip is to get to know the people in Dominica.
It will truly be the highlight of your trip. Take the bus at least once and spend time talking to people, especially in the smaller villages. Dominicans are so warm and friendly and so excited to have people visit and take an interest in their island and you’ll learn a lot from them about their traditions and way of life.
EM: Tell us about your favorite places in Dominica.
AMN: I love Sari Sari waterfall. If you can manage to be there when no one else is around, it’s completely magical and it gives me chills every time I see it.
The hike to the Boiling Lake is the most amazing hike I’ve ever done, hands down, and I recommend it to anyone who has the physical ability to do it.
Swimming in a river is a must. My favorite river spot is Basin Majo in the Carib Territory or Chaudierre Pool in Bense. The beaches in the north are great when you get them to yourself and the hot pools in Wotten Waven are a nice night time activity.
And my favorite snorkeling and diving spots are in the southeast, but they are starting to become so popular that the sea life is moving out as tourists move in so I’m not sure how good they are anymore.
EM: I hear the diving and hiking in Dominica is unbeatable. True?
I got dive certified while I was there and spent a lot of time underwater.
I almost always encountered at least one sea turtle on every dive and saw seahorses, the occasional octopus, lobsters, schools of colorful fish, eels, and all kinds of crazy sea life.
Because Dominica has gone for so long as an undiscovered tourism destination, it has managed to maintain very healthy coral and marine environments.
And the hiking is great, especially since nearly every hike in Dominica is through lush rainforest and ends with some kind of fun water activity like a gorgeous river swim, a waterfall, a beach, or the world’s second largest boiling lake.
If you go with a guide it will enhance the trip so much more as you’ll learn a lot about the flora and fauna and the country itself from them that you might not otherwise pick up.
Beware that Dominica’s terrain is very rugged. The country has the highest concentration of volcanoes in the world (there are nine on this tiny island!) so this means that most of the hikes are a bit challenging because you’ll be going either straight up or straight down and often doing a lot of river crossings, so be prepared for it.
And if you go in the rainy season, expect a lot of mud. But don’t let that discourage you because on almost all of the hikes, the journey is just as fun as the destination!
And an exciting new hiking feature was just opened this year, the Waitukubuli National Trail.
It’s over 120 miles long and hits lots of the major attractions as it zig-zags it’s way from the southern end to the northern tip with stops on both the east and west coast.
There are homestays with local families and farm visits along the way for travelers who really want to get to know the people and culture along with the land.
On The Road With: is an ongoing series where I chat with a fellow wanderer about life on the road. If you are interested in participating, please contact me here.